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Kyle Rittenhouse instigated the confrontation that led him to shoot three men on the streets of Kenosha during a turbulent protest against racial injustice, and he killed one of the victims with a bullet to the back, a prosecutor said in opening statements Tuesday at Rittenhouse's murder trial.
But Rittenhouse's attorney told the jury that his client acted in self-defense after one of the men dove for his gun and others kicked him in the face and clubbed him in the head with a skateboard.
“You as jurors will end up looking at it from the standpoint of a 17-year-old under the circumstances as they existed,” defense attorney Mark Richards said.
Rittenhouse, now 18, is charged with killing two men and wounding a third with an assault-style rifle during the summer of 2020. He could get life in prison if convicted.
The one-time aspiring police officer traveled to Kenosha from his home in Illinois, just across the Wisconsin state line, after protests broke out over the shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, by a white Kenosha police officer. Rittenhouse said he went there to protect property after two nights in which rioters set fires and ransacked businesses.
In his opening statement, prosecutor Thomas Binger described the unrest as “two of the roughest nights that our community has ever seen," and said outsiders were drawn to Kenosha “like moths to a flame.”
Yet Binger repeatedly stressed that amid the hundreds of people in Kenosha and the anger and chaos in the streets, “the only person who killed anyone is the defendant, Kyle Rittenhouse.”
Binger told the jury that self-defense can be a valid claim only if Rittenhouse reasonably believed he was using deadly force to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.
The prosecutor said that it is not known exactly what words were said, but it is clear that Rittenhouse started a confrontation that caused the first person shot that night, Joseph Rosenbaum, to begin chasing Rittenhouse across a parking lot.
Binger emphasized, too, that Rosenbaum, 36, was killed by a shot to the back after he threw a plastic bag. The prosecutor noted that the first two bullets hit Rosenbaum in the lower extremities, causing him to fall forward.
Richards, the defense attorney, said Rosenbaum yelled an expletive at Rittenhouse and lunged for his gun before Rittenhouse fired at him. It was Rosenbaum who “lit the fuse that night," he said.
Richards said Rittenhouse fired four shots at Rosenbaum in less than a second “as he’s trying to take Kyle’s weapon from him to use against him.”
Binger, the prosecutor, said that after shooting Rosenbaum, Rittenhouse fled the scene instead of rendering aid, despite portraying himself as a medic earlier in the night. But Richards said Rittenhouse didn’t stop to help because the crowd wanted to “kill him," and instead ran toward police.
The crowd at that point clearly believed Rittenhouse was an active shooter, according to the prosecutor.
Moments after shooting Rosenbaum, Rittenhouse shot and killed Anthony Huber, 26, a protester from Silver Lake, Wisconsin, who was seen on bystander video hitting Rittenhouse with a skateboard. He wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, 27, a protester from West Allis, Wisconsin, who had a gun in his hand as he stepped toward Rittenhouse.
The defense also apparently pushed back against the notion that Rittenhouse was an outsider drawn to Kenosha by a call to arms on right-wing social media. Richards said Rittenhouse had strong ties to Kenosha -- his father lived there and Rittenhouse worked in Kenosha County as a lifeguard -- and had seen livestreams of what was happening.
The prosecutor said there was nothing wrong with Rittenhouse offering to protect Car Source, the used car dealership where the first shooting occurred. But he repeated that amid all the chaos, only one person killed anyone.
“When we consider the reasonableness of the defendant’s actions, I ask you to keep this in mind,” Binger said.
As his attorney displayed photos and video clips from the night of the shootings, Rittenhouse, wearing a dark pinstriped suit and tie, leaned on his elbows to view the images on a desktop monitor. He sat ramrod straight as audio of gunfire was played, and occasionally turned toward jurors, seeming to scrutinize their reactions.
His mother, Wendy Rittenhouse, sat behind him.
The jury was selected with remarkable speed in just one day Monday, considering how politically polarizing the case has proved. The most serious count against Rittenhouse, first-degree intentional homicide, is Wisconsin’s top murder charge.
Twenty people in all were selected to hear the case: 12 jurors and eight alternates. Eleven are women and nine are men. The court did not immediately provide a racial breakdown of the group, but it appeared to be overwhelmingly white.
Rittenhouse has been painted by supporters on the right — including foes of the Black Lives Matter movement — as a patriot who took a stand against lawlessness by demonstrators and exercised his Second Amendment gun rights. Others see him as a vigilante and police wannabe.
He is white, as were those he shot, but many activists see an undercurrent of race in the case, in part because the protesters were on the streets to decry police violence against Black people.
___ Bauer reported from Madison, Wisconsin, Forliti from Minneapolis. Associated Press writer Tammy Webber contributed from Fenton, Michigan.